- July 2004 - Written by Phil Muse
Tragic view of life: Schubert's Last Sonatas
Pianist Jerome Rose is at the top of his form on his Medici Classics label in stunning performances of Franz Schubert's Three Posthumous Sonatas and the "Wanderer" Fantasie. The sonatas took the classical piano sonata as far as the form could go before it had to turn in other directions (to literary programs, for example), and the Fantasie opened new directions for, among, others, Franz Liszt.
It's hard to decide where to begin in discussing the "Posthumous" Sonatas, landmarks of keyboard music. Schubert wrote all three within the space of just three weeks in September of 1828, only two months before his death at the age of 31. There is no other instance in music history of so much white-hot creativity in so short a period: even Mozart required three months in the summer of 1788 to pen his three last symphonies, and he was in good health. Schubert, on the other hand, knew he was dying when he wrote the sonatas. While it would be tempting to view them as his deathbed confession, it seems more reasonable to assume that he had a lot of great music inside him that craved expression on paper while there was yet time.
Generally speaking, all three sonatas contend in different ways with a tragic view of life, which was inescapable under the circumstances. Very, very generally, we might characterize the Sonata in C minor, D.958 as the doomed tragic poet of the three, the Sonata in A major, D.959 as the triumphant hero, and the Sonata in B-flat major, D.960 as the enlightened mystic who has moved beyond pain and suffering to a better world. I say very generally because all three deal with tragedy, though it becomes less immediate and more a matter of pain recollected as we move through the Deutsch numbers.
For want of space, I'm going to concentrate on the first, and hardest to love, of the trio, the C minor Sonata. It is the densest of the three, requiring only 30 minutes to perform as compared with 40-plus for D.959 and 960. Alfred Brendel called it "predominately somber, passionate yet icy." From the explosive opening motif, followed by an extended meditation that grows perceptibly darker and more menacing, we know we are in for serious business. There is something sinister about the first-movement development that Rose conveys to us very well.
The second movement, marked Andante sostenuto, begins as softly as a prayer, but this mood is soon swept aside by stormy passages filled with angry outbursts and breaks in continuity that are a trademark in this work. In the middle section, Schubert moves from the C-sharp minor of the opening to a radiant A major, offering us hope amid the disquieting surroundings. The fleet, light-textured scherzo movement provides the briefest respite before we are plunged headlong into the finale, a "death gallop" if ever there was one. As booklet annotator Stephen Wigler rightly observes, even the few moments of transition here do not provide relief: rather, "they are terrifying because of the terrible inevitability of the resumption of the movement's obsessive and driven subject." We sense why the C-minor Sonata is performed less frequently than its companions even as we admire its powerful intensity.
After the Posthumous Sonatas, the glorious "Wanderer" Fantasy of six years earlier comes almost as a "holiday for piano," though its virtuosic demands are very great. Schubert himself broke down in frustration when attempting to play the (very) loud peroration at the end of the finale, although of course this moment is less daunting for a pianist with the immense technical prowess of Jerome Rose. The Fantasy is a marvel of transformation, in which a single highly rhythmical theme is used to link and unify each of the four movements, which are played without breaks. As many years as I've heard this wonderful work, it has a way of coming up fresh in each new interpretation - and never have it heard it performed with more brilliance and conviction than here.